Leading Article: Ruling through the ballot box

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The Independent Online
FORTY YEARS ON from the coronation of Elizabeth II, the British monarchy is under greater scrutiny than at any time since the abdication crisis of 1936. Many aspects of that scrutiny were raised in the two pages the Independent devoted to the monarchy yesterday. In this tangled debate, in which considerations of personality, constitution and national emotion have become intertwined, two separate issues are often considered as if they were one. First: what place should the head of state occupy in the governance of the country? Second: should the position of head of state pass by inheritance, as it does in Britain today, or should the head of state be elected?

On the first issue, this newspaper has long taken the view that the British constitution needs an overhaul: a broad set of changes in which the country would be given a written constitution and Bill of Rights, backed up by an activist supreme court, and authority would be more clearly divided between legislature, executive and judiciary. Soldiers and judges would swear no oath of loyalty to the person of the head of state; instead, they would swear to uphold the constitution, and the head of state would do the same.

To adopt a written constitution does not rule out having a monarchy: many of our European neighbours have both and live more happily with their constitutional arrangements than we do. But there are other options: the United States has a president who is a highly active and politicised head of the executive branch of government. Japan has an emperor (recently acknowledged to be mortal) who, though highly visible, is defined in the text of the country's post- war constitution as merely the 'symbol of the state and of the unity of the people'. Both France and Germany have a president who is a 'first citizen', albeit with very different powers.

Once Britain has adopted a written constitution, Parliament can address the second issue: should a form of monarchy, presumably hereditary, stay under the new arrangements? Or should Britain have an elected head of state? It is tempting to believe that if the job is to be largely a ceremonial one, the details are not important. But there will be times when it matters a great deal who is head of state: notably when Parliament is hung, and a cool head and detached judgement are needed to choose a prime minister to resolve the political crisis.

Many of the House of Windsor's most enthusiastic supporters believe that it would be impossible for Queen Elizabeth, or whichever of her offspring succeeds her, to accept a diminished role. Whence, they ask, would the the Royal Family derive its authority, gravity and dignity if its head was not even nominally above the law? This month, a marriage in Tokyo will explode that argument. Although the Emperor of Japan does little more than host banquets at home and fly the Japanese flag abroad, his dignity and mystery remain unsoiled - and this without private money or constitutional power. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the Windsors.

Many of the latter's critics believe the family has proved itself unfit to serve in any position in a British constitution, no matter how curtailed the role might be. That may be unduly harsh. It is true that the antics of some of the younger members - their custard-pie fights, their messy marriages, the inability of most of them to find a worthwhile occupation - have made them indistinguishable in the eyes of magazine readers across the world from second-class Hollywood film stars. But these are not constitutional matters. Of the many Windsor woes, only the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales raises national questions as serious as those posed by the marriage of Edward VIII.

The Queen herself, despite her apparent failings as a mother, remains largely untarnished. She has many of the quainter characteristics of an old-fashioned country landowner. But she is a good listener, and a woman whose position has given her a rare breadth of experience and accumulated knowledge. Her sense of duty has never been in doubt: she performs repetitive ceremonial duties with a grace that belies their tedium. Her reward has been to inspire widespread, if not particularily intense affection and to have been the last member of her family to suffer public criticism.

At present, the Queen seems certain to occupy her job for as long as she wishes. But the question of the succession looms. Under a written constitution, the people should be given a chance to express their views on whether the monarchy should outlast her. One method might be to oblige the Government under the new constitution to hold a referendum every decade on the desirability of retaining the institution. The first might be held during her reign, perhaps in the year 2000. If the monarchy failed to win a plurality twice in succession, the throne would remain occupied on a caretaker basis only until alternative arrangements could be made.

Such a system would give this inward- looking institution a powerful incentive to keep in touch with popular feeling. If it survived the referendums, it would have the satisfaction of a clearly demonstrated legitimacy. The future of the monarchy would depend on its ability to adapt to changing times. It would become performance related, with all the flexibility that implies. This would inject into the monarchy a kind of accountability. For those who believe only in majesty and mystery, that might seem unacceptable. But for everyone else, it would be no bad thing.

And if the monarchy failed to win popular approval, what should replace it? It is often argued that it would be impossible to find a figure who commands enough respect and affection to fill the post of president. But we have seen the folly of trying to elevate an entire family to a figurehead role. A single president would have a better chance of living up to the national expectations than a large family afflicted with human failings yet burdened with royal status. After all, Mary Robinson in Ireland and Germany's president, Richard von Weizsacker, embody the finest and most liberal virtues of their people.

The fact that it is so difficult for us to imagine placing a fellow citizen in the role of head of state shows how deeply ingrained the habit of respecting lineage more than achievement has become. That is a depressing reminder of how backward-looking a hereditary monarchy has made this country.